1987...rabbits, collusion, rookies and the future...
The narrative that is the 1987 baseball season cannot be begun without mentioning juice. As in 'the ball was juiced'. Speculation among many, both fans and experts, was that the balls used in major leagues were altered for the 1987 season. This appeared to have been an effort to create more offense, and to be able to feature many more home runs on the nightly televised highlight shows.
But no one has been able to prove that the balls were changed at all. In fact, several independent tests all concluded the same, that the baseballs were consistent with those used during the 1986 season.
Whatever the reason, the 1987 season saw a record 4.458 home runs hit, beating the previous record by 645. That previous record of 3,813 had been set in 1986, allegedly using the same ball.
In fact, the 1987 home run totals for both leagues wouldn't be matched until the next round of expansion. I guess we'll just call it a statistical anomaly for the offense, and conversely, the pitching, which was ultimately responsible for allowing the massive amount of homers. More so in the American League, where there were 44% more home runs than in the National League. A good part of this, of course, was the designated hitter rule, which let the AL teams add a ninth bat to the lineup. But that discrepancy is more than just one hitter per team.
The AL hit 2,364 homers to the NL's 1,824, a difference of 810. Dividing that variance among the 14 AL teams, it's an average of almost 58 homers per team. Both league leaders hit 49. The pitching in the AL was not as dominant as in the NL. Statistically, the NL hurlers held a 3.5% advantage over the Junior Circuit, but the AL hitters bested the Senior Circuit by 6.7%.
Wade Boggs, the American League batting champion, hit twenty four homers that year. It was the first time he reached double digits in his career, and only did it one other time (1994 with eleven).
Quite a few players were suspected of 'corking' their bats, which many believe would add distance to a batted ball. The allegations were becoming so rampant that the Commissioners office passed a decree allowing teams to challenge the umpires to confiscate the bat of a player suspected of 'corking' or tampering with their bats, which was a violation of league rules.
However, each team was allowed to only do this one time per game. This led to a little bit of one-upmanship among managers.
I was at a Mets-Cubs game that season where Johnson homered, and Cubs manager Don Zimmer came out and asked the umpire to check his bat. The next inning, Andre Dawson of the Cubs homered, and Mets skipper Davey Johnson asked for Dawson's bat to be checked.
Neither turned up anything out of the ordinary after being x-rayed, and Johnson would homer again later in the game with a different bat.
With all that being said, the King of the Hill at the end of the season was a surprise to everyone, except maybe the die-hard Twins fans.
Minnesota, led by manager Tom Kelly, who had managed just 23 games in his career, rallied to win the AL West division. Playing in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, the Twins enjoyed a huge home field advantage throughout the season. Allegations of tampering with air conditioning, improprieties with the dome itself, and even signal stealing were all bandied about throughout the season, but none were ever found to be true.
What is true is that they won 52 of their 81 games at home, over 64%. On the road, they were no where near as successful. They won just under 36% of their road games, and only won 9 games on the road after the All-Star break.
They were the team with the lowest win count to win a World Series. And win it they did. Taking advantage of the alternating home field rules for the Series, the Twins hosted the first two games, and the last two games of the 7 game series. The St. Louis Cardinals hosted the middle three.
Predictably, the favored Cardinals won the three games they hosted, and Minnesota won all of their home games.
The Twins, as a team, failed to make either top five lists in team offense of team pitching rankings. Yet, they found ways to win.
At the outset of the season, if you were to wager that the Champions would be a team with just eighty-five wins, you would have easily cleaned up. In fact, none of the favorite pre-season teams made the playoffs.
The Mets, coming off of their 108 win season, and their second World Championship, were loaded for bear. Not only did they already have a great pitching staff, and a potent offense, but they upgraded both during the off-season.
Adding outfielder Kevin McReynolds and rookie pitcher David Cone, the Mets looked to be on the verge of a dynasty. But that wasn't to be. They lost ace pitcher Dwight Gooden to substance abuse issues, and he missed two months. Reliever Roger McDowell missed a month and a half, and the offense started to show its age.
Youngsters Darryl Strawberry and Howard Johnson did form a formidable offensive threat, becoming the first teammates to join the 30 homer 30 stolen base club in the same season.
In the American League East, a curious trend had been happening. Beginning in 1981, the pennant winners were:
1985 Blue Jays
1986 Red Sox
Six of the seven divisional teams had won the crown, so things were optimistic in Cleveland. So much so that most national magazines had picked the Indians to win the division, if not the AL Championship. They were the cover story on the Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue. They had some great young talent. Cory Snyder, Joe Carter and Brook Jacoby were the heart of the batting order, and the pitching was reliant upon Tam Candiotti, Greg Swindell and veterans Phil Niekro and Steve Carlton. And they failed.
The Indians would eventually lose 101 games, thirty seven games behind the Detroit Tigers. In doing so, the Indians are first franchise to lose 100 games one year, finish above .500 the next year, and then lose 100 games in that third year.
Collusion, or the illusion of it, reigned in the off-season prior to the 1987 season. Whether major league owners suddenly gained amazing self restraint, or whether there was a plan set down by baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, the free-agents of 1986 were met with a lot of closed doors, and low ball offers.
In fact, Major League Baseball would lose a lawsuit pertaining to the Free Agents of 1985, 1986 and 1987, and had to settle with the affected players. The final judgement was passed in 1990.
Commissioner Fay Vincent maintains that the bitterness felt by the players rank and file, led to the labor strife in 1994-95 which led to the strike that canceled the World Series that year.
Many players who were expecting to hit the jackpot with their free agency, would up signing for far less money than they thought, sometimes much less that the final offer given by their former teams.
At that time, there were two forms of action that the free agents could take. The first was to sign for whatever they could. The second was to re-sign with their previous team. If they chose the latter, they were unable to sign until May 1st.
Of the players choosing the latter option, Tim Raines of the Expos had the biggest immediate impact. Resigning with the Montreal Expos on May 1st, “Rock” was in the lineup on the 2nd against the Mets. His first major league action since the previous October. He only went 4 for five, including a homer in the tenth inning off of Jesse Orosco.
Raines' former Expos teammate, Andre “The Hawk” Dawson was also a free agent who was having a difficult time finding work. He had no desire to return to Montreal, where the artificial surface at Olympic Stadium was playing havoc with his knees. Dawson set his sight on Chicago, with their homer friendly conditions, and a grass surface. The Cubs showed no interest.
Finally, in a desperation move, Dawson's agent handed the Cubs a contract with no dollar amount, suggesting that Cubs fill in what they thought was a fair amount. Cubs General Manager Dallas Green decided on a $500,000 salary, with incentive bonuses of $150,000 for not being on the disabled list before the All-Star Game, and an additional $50,000 for making the All-Star Game.
Also, any narrative of the 1987 would be remiss if it didn't mention the Al Campanis issue.
To commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut, the ABC program "Nightline” made arrangements to interview sportswriter Roger Kahn, and former pitcher Don Newcombe, a teammate of Robinson's. Newcombe was the director of community relations for the Dodgers. This interview was to be in ABC's New York studio.
Unfortunately, Newcombe missed a plane connection, and was unable to get to New York in time for the show. The Dodgers, who were now scrambling to find a replacement for Newcombe, contacted Al Campanis, who was in Houston with the Dodgers for their opener.
Campanis was also a teammate of Robinson's in Montreal, playing shortstop next to Jackie, who was at second base.
The interview was to serve as a memorial to Robinson, and Campanis shared stories of his experiences along side Jackie in the minor leagues.
Later, the discussion changed to the subject of blacks in baseball today, which was where it all began to unravel. Campanis, on live television, made some comments that were racial slurs, saying that “...It's just that they (blacks) may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager or perhaps a general manager.”
Campanis, after a very public apology was fired from the Dodgers, but the microscope was on baseball. USA Today, in an unofficial survey, found that of the 879 administrative positions in baseball, only 17 of those positions were held by African-Americans, and 13 held by Hispanics and Asians. While I don't have today's numbers, it is fair to say that the landscape has changed drastically. Whether that was because of this scandal, or just baseball getting up to speed with the times, its fair to say that baseball has made vast improvements in this area.
But on to some of the uniqueness that was the 1987 season:
The season started on a high note in Milwaukee, where the Brewers won thirteen in a row to start the season. They quickly fell to earth again, by losing twelve in a row later in the month, becoming the first team to have a winning streak and a losing streak of twelve or more games in the same season.
And speaking of streaks in Milwaukee, Paul Molitor went on a thirty-nine game hitting streak. It was the longest streak in the major leagues since Pete Rose went for forty-four games in 1978, and it was the longest in the American League since DiMaggio's immortal fifty-six in 1941.
But the streaks didn't end there.
San Diego Padres rookie catcher, Benito Santiago, established a rookie record by hitting in thirty-four straight games. It was the only time that two players had streaks of thirty-four or more in the same season.
But wait, there's more!!!
In the college ranks, Oklahoma State freshman Robin Ventura went on an NCAA record fifty-eight game hitting streak. Ventura, who was named Baseball America's Freshman of the Year, finished with a .428 batting average.
But getting back to Paul Molitor in Milwaukee, he became the first American Leaguer to steal second, third and home in the same inning in thirteen years.
Revisiting San Diego, outfielder Tony Gwynn was part of an historic first inning against the Giants. In the bottom of the first inning on April 13th, with the Padres already down 2-0, the first three Padres batters hit home runs. The only time that the first three hitters homered consecutively. Marvell Wynne, Gwynn and John Kruk all tagged solo shots off of Giants starter Roger Mason.
As an early indicator of the upcoming Padres season, they lost the game 13-6.
But for Gwynn, who led the league in batting with a .370 average, it made him the third player in National League history to win a batting title for a last place team. He would do that two more times, a dubious record. Only Larry Walker of the Colorado Rockies has done it more than once.
Gwynn was the first National Leaguer to hit .370 since Stan Musial in 1948.
Moving to Oakland, Mark McGwire shattered the home run record for rookies by eleven. His forty-nine beat Al Rosen's American League record of thirty-seven. It also eclipsed Wally Berger and Frank Robinson, who co-hold the National League record of thirty-eight.
And Mr. October, Reggie Jackson, retired at the end of the season. Reggie was the last active player that played for the Kansas City Athletics.
The Detroit Tigers, who fought off the Brewers and Toronto Blue Jays for the American League East crown, made a crucial late season trade that was beneficial for both teams. For the Tigers, they acquired pitcher Doyle Alexander from the Atlanta Braves. Alexander paid immediate dividends for Detroit. In eleven games for the Tigers, the journeyman right-hander went 9-0, with a minuscule ERA of 1.53. Even though it was just eleven games in the league, Alexander fared well enough to gain 4th place in Cy Young balloting.
On the return side of that trade, the Braves acquired a twenty year old pitcher, who was pitching for Glens Falls in the AA Eastern League named John Smoltz.
Smoltz would move up to AAA Richmond after the trade, and make his big league debut the next year for Atlanta, on the way to a twenty-one year, Hall of Fame career.
While there is no doubt the impact Alexander had on the Tigers pennant run, there were some other performances of note.
Darrell Evans became the first forty year old to hit 30 or more homers in a season, and the third forty year old to hit a Grand Slam.
Pitcher Jack Morris established a record for wild pitches in a season (which has since been broken)
Going back to Atlanta, Phil Niekro retired. He was the last active player from the Milwaukee Braves.
And Albert Hall hit for the cycle.
Also hitting for the cycle were Andre Dawson of the Cubs, Tim Raines of the Expos and Candy Maldonado of the Giants.
In Boston, Wade Boggs reached 200 hits and 100 walks for the second of his four consecutive seasons. He is the only player to have done this. Only Lou Gehrig has done it more times
Red Sox outfielder/designated hitter Don Baylor celebrated his thirty-eighth birthday in a unique way, by being hit by a pitch. Yankee pitcher Rick Rhoden hit Baylor for what was the 244th time in Baylor's career, establishing a new record for being hit.
For the Yankees, it was a strange year for offense by Don Mattingly. Donnie Ballgame tied the major league record by homering in eight straight games. He also came into the season without ever hitting a Grand Slam. He quickly changed that by hitting a record six Grand Slams in 1987. And then he never hit another in his career.
Second baseman Juan Bonilla may have established a record for ascension through the ranks. Beginning in Class A ball, Bonilla worked up to AA ball, AAA ball and then the major leagues within the span of eleven days.
And the Yankees disappointing season also led to Rick Cerone becoming one of just seven players in major league history to both catch and then pitch in the same game. But Cerone is the only one to do it twice, and both times were during the '87 season.
Owner George Steinbrenner, of the Yankees, gave us my favorite quote from 1987. He told manager Lou Piniella “I just won you the pennant. I just got you Steve Trout.”
In Minnesota, en route to their first World Series title, outfielder Kirby Puckett got six hits in a game...
As did Kansas City Royals rookie Kevin Seitzer.
As I mentioned earlier, Howard Johnson and Darryl Strawberry become the first teammates to reach the 30 homer/ 30 stolen base club.
Johnson, who became the everyday third-baseman for the Mets after Ray Knight became a free agent, faced accusations of the bat tampering mentioned above. No evidence was ever found to explain his sudden offensive dominance.
In Cincinnati, manager Pete Rose guided the only outfield trio in history to combine for 100 homers and 100 stolen bases.
In Baltimore, while losing badly to the Toronto Blue Jays, manager Cal Ripken, Sr. decided to pull his son, Cal Ripken, Jr. from his shortstop position and replace him with Ron Washington. That ended Ripken's streak of 8,243 consecutive innings played
And switch hitting first baseman Eddie Murray became the first to hit a home run from each side of the plate on consecutive days.
Speaking of switch hitters, Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Bobby Bonilla became the first Pirate, in the one hundred six year history of the franchise, to homer from each side of the plate in the same game.
In Philadelphia, slugger Mike Schmidt became the fourteenth member of the 500 home run club.
For the Cubs, Lee Smith became the first reliever to save thirty games in four consecutive seasons.
Andre Dawson would be voted the league's Most Valuable Player. It would be the first time that an MVP has come from a last place team. It was also the fourth time that the MVP has come from a team with a losing record. Every other instance of that happening has been a Cubs player. (Hank Sauer in 1952, Ernie Banks in 1958 & 1959 and Dawson)
And then there's Nolan.
The Ryan Express, Nolan Ryan won his first ERA title. In doing so, he was the last of three forty year olds to win the ERA title, and became the first since 1958 to do it with a losing record.
He also led the league in strikeouts.
He struck out Mike Aldrete of the Giants for his 4,500th strikeout, becoming the first of just three pitcher to reach that total.
He joined Rube Waddell and Jim Bunning as the third pitcher to lead both leagues in strikeouts. He became the oldest pitcher to lead the league in strikeouts, and then proceeded to extend that record for the next three seasons.
In minor league news, the independent Salt Lake Trappers of the Pioneer League won a record twenty- eight straight games.
Jackson Mets infielder, and super highly touted prospect, Gregg Jefferies hit .367 on the season. But that wasn't good enough to lead the Texas League in hitting. That honor fell to El Paso Diablos outfielder Lavell Freeman, who hit .395.
And major league draft history was made in 1987, but no one would know it yet. The Seattle Mariners used to first pick to draft and sign outfielder Ken Griffey, Jr. Griffey would go on to become the first #1 overall draft pick to make the Hall of Fame.
Griffey was born in Donora, Pennsylvania, which is about twenty miles from Pittsburgh. With a population of less than 5,000, it's hard to believe that they are the birthplace of not one, but two Hall of Famers.
Stan Musial was also born in this small mill town.
On to the season performances, beginning with the American League pitchers. I have added Doyle Alexander's numbers with Detroit, for comparison's sake. Even though he spent just a short time with the Tigers, his impact is unmistakable.
Here we have the top eleven initial ratings:
- PitcherTeamW-LERASV/CGCy VoteDoyle AlexanderTigers9-01.534thRoger ClemensRed Sox20-92.9718cg1stJimmy KeyBlue Jays17-82.762ndBret SaberhagenRoyals18-103.3615cgNo votesFrank ViolaTwins17-102.906thJack MorrisTigers18-113.3813cg9thDave StewartA's20-133.683rdMark LangstonMariners19-133.8414 cg5thFloyd BannisterWhite Sox16-113.58No votesCharlie LeibrandtRoyals16-113.41No votesRick RhodenYankees16-103.86No votes
Now, comparing them to their team's average performances, we get this list:
- Doyle AlexanderAboveRoger ClemensAboveDoug JonesIndians6-53.158No votesFrank ViolaAboveMark LangstonAboveCharlie HoughRangers18-133.7913cgNo votesBret SaberhagenAboveDave StewartAboveDave SchmidtOrioles10-53.77No votesFloyd BannisterAboveTeddy HigueraBrewers18-103.85146th
From this we get this final top ten ranking:
Over in the National League, we have another part timer that rates very highly, so I have included him in the rankings, again for comparison sake. Pascual Perez of the Expos appeared in only ten games, winning seven of those.
Here are the initial rankings:
- Pascual PerezExpos7-02.30No votesTim BurkeExpos7-01.1918svNo votesDwight GoodenMets15-73.215thMike DunnePirates13-63.03No votesDave SmithAstros2-31.6524svNo votesDennis MartinezExpos11-43.30No votesOrel HershiserDodgers16-163.064thMike ScottAstros16-133.237thBob WelchDodgers15-93.228thRick SutcliffeCubs18-103.682ndRick ReuschelPirates/Giants13-93.0912cg3rd
And then compared to their teams, we get this list, which is very similar:
- Pascual PerezAboveMike DunneAboveRick SutcliffeAboveDave SmithAboveTim BurkeAboveOrel HershiserAboveDwight GoodenAboveMike ScottAboveZane SmithBraves15-104.09No votesBob WelchAboveRick Reuschelabove
Which brings our final rankings to:
The National League Cy Young Award was won by Phillies reliever Steve Bedrosian, who doesn't appear on my list. He did save 40 games, and had a very respectable ERA of 2.38. He also won 5 games. But when you look at the numbers above by Tim Burke and Dave Smith, especially with ERA, you can see how thy ranked higher than he did. When you look also at their WHIP numbers (Walks+Hits/Innings Pitched), you find Bedroisian averaged 1.2022 per nine innings, while Smith was at 1.000 and Burke at .8901.
Just in case you wondered why the Cy Young winner didn't make this cut.
Now to the offense, which was high powered across both leagues. We'll take a look at the American League first. As I mentioned earlier, the AL had a barrage of homers hit in 1987, and you'll see those gaudy number reflected in these lists.
Herewith is the initial top ten ranking for American League offense:
- PlayerTeamHRRBIAVGRCGSBMVPPaul MolitorBrewers1675.3531.47455thDwight EvansRed Sox34123.3051.2944thWade BoggsRed Sox2489.3631.1819thGeorge BellBlue Jays47134.3081.2751stDon MattinglyYankees30115.3271.2617thAlan TrammellTigers28105.3431.23212ndWally JoynerAngels34117.2851.23813thWillie RandolphYankees767.3051.3011NoneMark McGwireA's49118.2891.1016thMike GreenwellRed Sox1989.3281.135None
And then compared to their teams, we get this list:
- Don MattinglyAboveWally JoynerAboveGeorge BrettRoyals2278.2901.106NonePaul MolitorAboveWillie RandolphAboveDanny TartabullRoyals34101.3091.03917thLarry SheetsOrioles3194.3161.011NoneGeorge BellAboveKevin SeitzerRoyals1583.3231.071220thDwight Evansabove
That makes our final ranking as such:
Now, on to the National League, our initial top ten is:
- Eric DavisReds37100.2931.42509thJack ClarkCardinals35106.2861.2513rdTim RainesExpos1868.3301.24507thDale MurphyBraves44105.2951.111611thDarryl StrawberryMets39104.2841.12366thKal DanielsReds2664.3341.0326NoneMike SchmidtPhillies35113.2931.13214thTim WallachExpos26123.2981.2294thAndre DawsonCubs49137.2871.16111stTony GwynnPadres754.3701.06568th
And then compared to their teams, we get:
- Pedro GuerreroDodgers2789.3380.99915thMike SchmidtAboveTony GwynnAboveAndre DawsonAboveTim RainesAboveJuan SamuelPhillies28100.2721.163513thJohn KrukPadres2091.3131.0418NoneDale MurphyAboveJack ClarkAboveBilly HatcherAstros1163.2961.0553None
Our final top ten National League rankings are then:
In the American League, then. Were I to have a vote, my top five ballot would have been:
(Player and Pitcher of the Year)
And in the National League, my vote would have been:
(Player of the Year)